“If a Bear Can Do it, Why Can’t I?”
How Nature Can Teach Us to Survive the Winter Blues
By: Samantha Edwards, MA, LAC
For several decades now, I’ve held a deep conviction that I would make a really good bear.
Climbing trees… protecting my young… being exceptionally strong and fast… snatching live salmon from a stream with my bare paws… and best of all… … … (say it with me…) — HIBERNATION.
Oh, what a glorious season to be a bear! I imagine donning several coats, pre-game eating lots of trail mix, then sleeping in a cool dark den for weeks or months on end. Bear life is the life for me.
As a therapist, I have conversations with many people who struggle with the “winter blues” – described as chronic fatigue, sadness, and low motivation when the seasons change – or at its most severe, Seasonal Affective Disorder* (SAD). *If you or someone you know are struggling with SAD, there are extra resources for you at the end of the article!
As a fellow human, I’ve struggled with these symptoms in the winter throughout most of my adult life. In college I wasn’t able to fully identify it as a cyclical pattern, with all the busyness and chaos that collegiate life can bring; but looking back, I think a Part of me always longed for a societally-approved extended season of rest that would match the natural world around me. Hence, my idealistic aspirations of becoming a bear.
The older I get, the clearer it becomes that our society is moving at 1,000 mph. Particularly in Western culture, the Individual’s accomplishments and work ethic seem more highly regarded than aspects of Community, self-care, and rest. I’ve heard people express, “If I’m resting, then I’m being lazy. If I’m not producing something, then I’m not worth anything.” Or even, “If I slow down, then I’ll go crazy with boredom! My brain operates at this speed all the time and I don’t think it’s possible to stop even if I wanted to.” Heard, my friends! Many of us have brains and nervous systems that seem to automatically set the speed of our internal treadmill. Combine our own physiology with culture’s messages about productivity-determined-worth, and you’ve got a recipe for fatigue, weariness, or burn out.
So what’s the answer? If I can’t become a gloriously hibernating grizzly, and if I can’t magically shift cultural expectations with the changing of the seasons, then what options am I left with?
I’m not sure there is just one answer; but this year I’ve decided to “make like a bear” and store up some practical ideas (I’ll call them “Nuggets of Wisdom”) to help my body shift seasons with less resistance. After all, bears do not go into hibernation “on the fly” with no preparation. It is built into their brains and nervous systems to observe the world around them, to note the changing of temperature and sunlight patterns, to monitor the scarcity of food, and to take steps to prepare a place for themselves to be safe and have their needs met in the season ahead.
I invite you to take a look at the Nuggets I’ve gathered for my Winter Den and see if any of them resonate with resources you can use to help take care of yourself as you are wintering.
- Look around you. – Literally open those eyes, get near a window or walk outside, and name 5 “natural” or organic things you can see right now (so not a car, a building, or piece of technology). Ready? GO! We can learn so much from the flora and fauna around us. They just know what to do when the seasons change! Many perennial plants and trees shed their leaves and literally slow down their processes to preserve the life of their root systems or seeds below ground. The lack of sunlight affects them just as much as us, if not more than us! Get curious and take 5 minutes to ask the internet how your favorite plant or animal survives the winter months. You might be surprised by what you learn.
- Interview your Parts. – This may sound silly, but stay with me! When you notice a physical sensation in your body urging you to lay down or to sleep – or when you hear a thought in your head or a sentence coming out of your mouth complaining about the cold or lack of sunlight, grab your imaginary microphone and get ready to interview that Part of you. That thought, sentence, or feeling just gave you some really good information about yourself, and you don’t want to miss it! One technique I’ve learned involves asking that Part a series of short questions (e.g. “What are 2-3 words that describe you? What do you want or need? What’s something that you do well? What is hard for you?) If you can suspend reality for just a few moments, you may find that some of your own Nuggets of Wisdom come out of those brief interviews. Your Part may have a literal need that you can provide for it (e.g. a blanket, warmer shoes, a 15 minute nap, a Facetime call with a family member); or it may highlight the need for more exploration to creatively get that need met.
- “Open when” notes. – On days or in moments when you are feeling more energetic, write yourself a short message/phrase on a note card or post-it note; fold it in half; then on the outside give yourself a circumstance when your message will be helpful or even necessary for you to read it. For example…
- (outside on the note) “Open When… You want to crawl back into your bed but have a full day of work ahead of you” → (inside the note) “You WILL see your bed again later today – you can count on it!”
- (outside on the note) “Open When… You have no motivation to do anything but stay inside and binge a show on Netflix” → (inside the note) “You can do hard things. I know you’ll roll your eyes when you read this, but deep down you DO care about [playing with your dog / making yourself a snack / washing your hair] Sometimes even a small activity can help your body reset.”
- Don’t be a hero. – For many of us, winter is juxtaposed with the aftermath of a busy holiday season + New Year pressures from society to “put our best foot forward”, build a “new you” in the new year, or develop one or many new year resolutions. If that fits well with your internal clock, personality, or self-care practices, that’s wonderful! If it doesn’t fit you well, you don’t have to be a hero and suffer through something that will make you feel more defeated or ashamed in the process. Instead, you do have the option to give yourself permission to start or refresh your wellness intentions in a different month or in an entirely different season, like spring or summer. Sometimes the best way to be a hero is to be quiet and listen to yourself.
- Document the history for your Future Self. – Chances are, if you experience physical or mental health shifts seasonally, you may in fact see those symptoms again at some point in the future. I used to come out of winter thinking: “Phew!! Girl, we made it! Now onto spring when I never have to think about how bad that felt, ever again…” This makes sense! We don’t often pause to reflect on the pain we experience, because it’s painful! Feeling things can be painful, so it’s very adaptive that our brains want to get as far away from it as possible. But what if you went into next year’s winter with a Den already filled with Nuggets of Wisdom from the previous year? Keeping a short description of your hard days as a Note on your phone, or filming a short video clip for yourself can be like a real-time time capsule. It’s not intended to be a harbinger of painful symptoms that may show up next year — but instead, allow it to be your trophy that you made it through a season that those sweet bears get to sleep through!
The Winter Blues carry with them a wide variety of experiences and intensity of symptoms. Seasonal Affective Disorder can absolutely bring symptoms that the aforementioned Nuggets of Wisdom alone cannot mitigate.
If you are experiencing new or worsening mood swings, irritability, depressed mood, change in appetite, fatigue, low motivation, or hopelessness, it’s very important that you share this information with a therapist and/or your primary care doctor.
If you are a teen or youth – please don’t be a hero with this either, and let your parent/caregiver know how you’ve been feeling. There are many more Nuggets and resources than the ones I’ve listed here, and they are not a one-size-fits all! Talking it through with an adult will help make sure you stay heard, seen, and safe.
You deserve to have helpers alongside you, to collaboratively design supports and resources that will best fit your needs in your “den”. If you’d like more information about starting therapy, we’d love to talk with you more! Contact us or call 856-985-9091.
Suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts should never be ignored.
If you or someone you know is experiencing severe depression, suicidal thoughts, and is in immediate danger of harm to self or harm to others, do not hesitate to call 911 or go to your local emergency room.
Additional support is also available:
- The Trevor Project for LGBTQIA+ Young People with 24/7 Support by phone: 1-866-488-7386
- National Suicide Preventions Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741)